Trump can learn from JFK’s ‘peace through strength’ legacy
William C. Kashatus
May 20, 2017
This month marks the centenary of President John F. Kennedy’s birth offering historians an important opportunity to consider his legacy. Of all his achievements, JFK’s decision to exert civilian control over the U.S. military was his greatest.
Kennedy understood that filtering policy decisions through the defense establishment would compromise the statecraft critical to maintaining global peace and protecting American interests. But in the half century since JFK’s death the military has become the dominant force in our nation’s foreign and national security policies, especially since Sept. 11 and the resulting global war on terror.
President Donald Trump has intensified the militarization of those policies by placing generals in three of the top four cabinet positions: Defense secretary (Gen. James Mattis), Homeland Security secretary (Gen. John F. Kelly) and National Security Advisor (Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster). Only Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the exception. In the process, the president has marginalized diplomacy by adopting a more adversarial posture toward Russia, authorizing airstrikes against Syria following a brutal chemical weapons attack and threatening military action against North Korea for a failed missile launch.
Trump would benefit from the lessons of JFK’s policy of “peace through strength.”
John F. Kennedy came to the presidency as a cold warrior. Like his predecessors, he shared a concern over the domino theory and the necessity of preserving U.S. credibility around the globe by supporting anti-communist regimes. But the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, a showdown with the Soviet Union over the City of Berlin and later offensive missiles in Cuba convinced Kennedy that the defense establishment saw the world much differently than civilian analysts and diplomats.
Pentagon officials and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were trained to respond to a crisis in operational terms. Military deterrence, the deployment of combat forces and even a limited nuclear war were forcefully recommended to Kennedy by the generals as legitimate first responses to Soviet aggression. With the exception of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a civilian and former CEO of the Ford Motor Company, the military establishment was unable, if not unwilling, to consider diplomacy.
To be sure, JFK understood that both types of decision-making – military and civilian – were important, and that it was necessary for him to coordinate between the two if he was to achieve his policy of “peace through strength.” That is why Kennedy, McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor, JFK’s own appointment to chair the Joint Chiefs, stressed multiple defensive alternatives ranging from subversive insurgency to conventional warfare to a limited nuclear war.
At the same time Kennedy saw this “flexible response” strategy and the expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal that accompanied it as way to further “peace through strength,” which recognized diplomacy and political engagement rather than war as the means of settlement. To achieve the necessary balance, Kennedy directed McNamara to centralize civilian authority in the Department of Defense and used Taylor to run interference for the administration by misleading the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Council and the press whenever it was expedient. This was especially true in Vietnam where he cleverly deflected military demands to escalate while planning to withdraw American advisers after his re-election in 1964.
Through such programs as the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress, Kennedy promoted nation-building in developing Third World nations in Latin America, Africa and Asia. His delicate exercise of statecraft with Russian premier Nikita Khruschev overcame a crisis in the divided City of Berlin and a potential nuclear holocaust during the Cuban missile crisis. In turn, these diplomatic achievements enabled JFK to reach agreement with the Soviet Union on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty a few months before his death in 1963.
None of these accomplishments would have been possible if Kennedy had followed the advice of his military advisers, who believed he was “soft on communism.”
Today, the United States has Special Operations forces deployed to more than 80 countries. The military conducts cyberwarfare abroad while Homeland Security has expanded the counter terrorism network so completely across the nation it is invisible to the American people.
Under these circumstances, it is extremely dangerous to have generals in charge of U.S. foreign and national security policy. They can only offer military solutions to much broader global challenges that can only be resolved through diplomacy.